In the USO's Early Years, Hostesses Provided a Wholesome Morale Boost
By Terese Schlachter
“Soldier, can I buy you a drink?”
Those were Irene Szuhay’s first words to a handsome young airman as he walked into the USO one rainy Saturday night in Dayton, Ohio.
“Of course it was a Coca-Cola,” Irene laughed. “It was pouring outside. He was just soaked.”
Private Victor Hennig told Irene he would “match” her for that Coke. Ping pong was the game and Irene was pretty fast around the table top.
The casual observer might have thought her a bit flirtatious. But really, she was just doing her job as a USO hostess during World War II. Their mission was to make the boys feel at home. It seems the most important qualification for the job was charm. Beauty didn’t hurt. Mostly they hung around USO clubs, jitterbugging on dance night, playing cards or working their gift of gab.
Irene won that ping pong match. She and Victor talked for a while and seemed to hit it off. But when Vic asked for her phone number, she refused. As a USO junior hostess, she was not permitted to date service members she met at dances. And she certainly couldn’t give out her phone number. She did agree, however, to just say the numbers and not write them down. By the time she got back to her room at the nearby YMCA, the phone was ringing.
After only six dates, the couple married in September 1945. They had two daughters and an adopted son, who passed away.
They weren’t the only young couple to bend the rules. Of the 70 former hostesses who talked with or wrote to Meghan Winchell, the author of “Good Girls, Good Food, Good Fun, The Story of USO Hostesses During World War II,” seven married men they met while volunteering.
“You have to think of it in context,” said Winchell, an associate professor of history at Nebraska Wesleyan University. “All of the young men who were eligible were in the military. There were very few civilian defense workers. If you were not in [the military] then you were rejected. If you were an 18 to 20-year-old woman, then the USO was the only game in town.”
If games have rules, this one had lots of them, designed mostly to keep the USO in the business of boosting morale among the troops while keeping it out of the dating game.
“No young lady will be permitted to leave the Service Club until the dance is over,” stated Rule No. 7 on a handout of guidelines for junior hostesses. Rule 8 warned, “At the conclusion of the dance, girls will leave only with their chaperones. Those coming in private cars will leave immediately after the dance.”
In “Hail Hostess,” an instructional USO pamphlet from the early 1940s, women were warned away from romance with words like, “The boys have a lot of things on their minds and you are probably not one of them!” They cautioned girls about unmentioned wives and girlfriends back home.
“They wanted middle-class, mostly white women who were considered sexually respectable,” said Winchell. “The USO knew women mattered to morale—the men needed company of women. [But] they didn’t want them having sex.” USO hostesses were prescreened “good girls” who could provide comfort in the way of conversation, dancing and the occasional picnic outing.
Young women had to be approved by a committee to volunteer.
Many of the young girls held jobs and were looking for a way to contribute to the war effort while also improving their social lives. Irene worked as a secretary for an Air Force colonel in the experimental engineering department at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base. She attended a USO dance almost every Saturday night.
While hostess programmers didn’t want things to go too far, they did want the women to appear attractive to the men. The USO Bulletin noted the organization was able to round up the “loveliest girls in the nation” and they set about making sure the women lived up to that standard. “Hail Hostess” made a point of telling women to “Be sure you’re sweet and clean!” and to “Consider clothes carefully! Men tell us they like their girls to look like girls.” Slacks were not permitted, although Irene said they weren’t popular anyway. Dresses were to be demure, and brightly colored, preferring white or pink to military grey or khaki.
Winchell told the story of Alice Roby, who was a hostess in Memphis, Tennessee, and took care to protect her reputation. She was puzzled, however, when she was repeatedly propositioned by service men. Finally she asked one of them why she seemed to have a so-called “fast” reputation. He explained that she wore “seductive” clothing—that is, close fitting and bright. After that, she was a bit more cautious in her fashion choices, but found it challenging to walk the line between fashionable and flirtatious.
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The USO provided not only a good, safe place to enjoy a favorable ratio of women to men—one Washington Post article suggested three men to every girl. Irene said there were only about five other hostesses at her club—but volunteering was patriotic. Being a hostess and boosting morale was considered civic duty. Lura Tabor, a hostess at a Washington, D.C., club told the Post, “This is my contribution to the war effort,” then added, “If there’s one thing I’m good at, it’s flirting.”
The presence of women in clubs was also thought to encourage men in battle. If they were treated as protectors and even VIPs by women they met—all the more reason to face combat and win the war.
While the USO tried to tamp down on romance, a brief Washington Post article trumpeted an upcoming dance, hosted for attendees of the National Junior Volunteer Conference, as a place for single men to meet “chicks.”
“In a word the name of the game is GIRLS…. At least 200 attractive, outgoing gals from nearly every state in the union will be at the USO dance including 75 lovelies from this area.” The last line of the article is downright chuckle-worthy: “And while you are writing down the date, you might break out your ‘little black book’—you just might be needing it.”
While some women did go to USO clubs looking for relationships, others seemed on the brink of revolution. Gina Kavelak, just 19 when interviewed for the Washington Post story, said it was too soon to get serious with anyone. “I figure I’m much too young. I’ve got lots to see and do before I even think of settling down,” she said.
Some of the junior hostesses did undergo training of sorts. An early 1940s report tells of a USO volunteer conference held in Oxnard, California, where junior volunteers from across the country gathered to learn about other clubs and ways they could improve their own. It details some of the “opportunities” provided to the women.
Other pamphlets the women received included instruction on how to talk with a soldier who, today, might be diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder. “We are finding out that men who have been facing hardships in combat often like simple things best. So maybe there should be fewer big dances and parties and more small quiet things going on,” from “Hail Hostess.”
Women were encouraged to stay away from topics like where the service members had been or what they might have seen, so conversations revolved mostly around the same things many of them like to talk about today.
“Usually you hear the same story—about back home and this girl and that girl. There’s an awful lot of talk about back home,” one hostess is quoted in the Washington Post story.
In precursor to today’s stresses on returning troops, one of the handouts helped women understand men might be missing their former crewmates and could be looking for something “spectacular,” following the rigors of a combat deployment. They were encouraged to help men adjust to civilian life by providing civilian and community contacts where they might find employment.
The hostess program endured through the Korean War but fell to feminism thereafter. Junior hostesses became junior volunteers and duties evolved with the times.
Like World War II veterans, the number of living hostesses is dwindling, but Irene still fondly remembers the USO.
“We met some of the nicest boys there. That one just stuck,” she said of her husband, Victor Hennig, who died of a heart attack in 1984.
—Terese Schlachter is a Maryland-based writer, producer and founder of Ridgeback Communications. This story appears in the Spring 2016 issue of On Patrol, the magazine of the USO.
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